Queneau letters

Letters from Iris Murdoch to Raymond Queneau

Iris Murdoch Archive has recently acquired 164 letters form Iris Murdoch to Raymond Queneau, which are now lodged in Kingston University's Archives and Special Collections. The acquisition was made possible with the help of grants from the MLA/V&A Purchase Grant Fund, the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the Breslauer Foundation, the Friends of the National Libraries and donations from members of the Iris Murdoch Society and the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Kingston University.

Murdoch corresponded with Queneau between 1946 and 1975, though the majority of the letters were written between 1946 and 1955. This correspondence, which ranges over discussions about her embryonic writing career, her emotional well-being, her thoughts on God and on a variety of philosophers, will offer fresh primary source material for researchers wishing to track Murdoch's intellectual development and identify fresh influences in her novels. It will also enlarge understanding of influences and dialogues with other philosophers and provide theologians with deeper insights into Murdoch's spiritual life. Additionally, the unprecedented insight into her inner life allowed in these letters will inform any future biography or research into how a writer's life is transformed into art. Professor Peter Conradi, Iris Murdoch's official biographer, suggests that this is "an electrifying run which [will] immeasurably enrich Kingston's archive".

This acquisition secures the status of Iris Murdoch Archive as an internationally significant source of information for researchers worldwide on the life and work of Iris Murdoch. It already houses Iris Murdoch's heavily annotated working library from her Oxford home and the library from her London flat, her unpublished book on Heidegger and several other notebooks; the working papers (including typescripts, interviews and cassettes) of Peter Conradi, Murdoch's official biographer, and a number of other lengthy letter runs purchased by, or gifted to, the Centre since its inauguration in 2004. The addition of these crucially important letters to Raymond Queneau has immeasurably enriched these existing holdings.

The significance of the Queneau letters to Murdoch scholarship

Iris Murdoch wrote to the French writer, Raymond Queneau, "Anything I shall ever write will owe so much, so much, to you" and "As I think more about literature [...] I realise more and more how crucial for me is everything you write". Murdoch corresponded with Queneau between 1946 and 1975, though the majority of the 164 letters now in the Murdoch archives and special collections at Kingston University are between 1946 and 1955. This crucially important correspondence, which ranges over discussions about her embryonic writing career, her emotional well-being, her thoughts on God and on a variety of philosophers will offers fresh primary source material for researchers wishing to track Murdoch's intellectual development and identify fresh influences in her novels. It will also enlarge understanding of influences and dialogues with other philosophers and provide theologians with deeper insights into Murdoch's spiritual life. Additionally, the unprecedented insight into her inner life allowed in these letters will inform any future biography or research into how a writer's life is transformed into art. Professor Peter Conradi, Iris Murdoch's official biographer, suggests that this is "an electrifying run which would immeasurably enrich Kingston's archive".

Literary Criticism:

  • The detailed journal of her life illustrates not only how, but also why, she worked certain life experiences into her plots. The fact that the Benedictine Malling Abbey provides the setting for her 1958 novel The Bell is well known, but the letters suggest why she was so struck with it and by implication offers a deeper understanding of the novel: "This was a remarkable experience. Discipline & control of that kind - ie when united with a spontaneous love & tenderness [...] - can be very healing & strengthening".
  • Peripheral detail of her novels shifts to more central significance in the light of these letters. For example, Professor Conradi suggests that the figure of Jake translating Breteuil in Murdoch's first novel, Under the Net, can now be seen as a self portrait of Murdoch translating Queneau's Pierrot.
  • The letters reveal details of plots, characters and intention from her unpublished early novels (now almost completely lost).
  • Her discussions of style with Queneau will direct new research into Murdoch's experimentation with the novel form which has often been obscured by critical attention to her perpetuation of nineteenth-century Realism: she is ecstatic at the arrival of Queneau's Exercises de Style in which the same event is described in 99 different ways: "These games with language, with speech, with being-in-words - thrill me very much".
  • A previously obscure area of Murdoch's life is brought into sharp relief: her time working for UNRRA in 1945. This part of her life generated her concerns with the terrible emotional effects of deracination and the appearance of disenfranchised outsider figures who haunt her novels. The letters from this period will enable scholars to reinterpret these motifs in her fiction.
  • The detail given about this episode in her life also contests information in her authorized biography: in the letters she describes herself as "comme second-in-command" equivocating the information given to Conradi by the head of the camp, Miss Jaboor, who describes Murdoch as "very junior".

Philosophy:

  • Murdoch's engagement with individual philosophers and their influences, her philosophical affinities and dislikes are revealed. She describes, for example, her attempts to understand Sartre, and how she has found a different Kierkegaard, having read Sartre, and begun to find a different Sartre having breathed the atmosphere of English philosophy. The catalogue of philosophers discussed includes Wittgenstein, Kierkegaard, Simone de Beauvoir, Plato, Hume, Kant, and Nietzsche, amongst others.
  • The letters shed some detailed light on her year in Cambridge in 1946-47, which will enable philosophers to establish fresh rationales for her subsequent philosophical positions and identify new influences. She reveals her intense dislike for Cambridge philosophers Pritchard, Ross and Cook Wilson, and comments extensively on the very different philosophical atmosphere there, feeling herself to be a "dreadful obscurantist" amongst "bright young men, [...] who are busy being very lucid and smart".

Theology:

  • The many moving discussions about her spiritual life flesh out the ambivalences that surround the tension in her writing being the denial of a personal God and an enduring desire to believe in one.
  • The letters suggest what generates the 'neo-theology' that Murdoch began to consider as a replacement for conventional religious worship at this time, and which she goes on to integrate into her novels from the late 1950s on. Here she reveals her transformation from "a political animal thinking my soul didn't matter" to "a religious animal, thinking it matters vitally".

Biography and Life-Writing:

  • The letters contain a wealth of intimate emotional confessions. In January 1947 Murdoch confesses to being deeply depressed: "As for 'happiness', mon dieu, I have dropped that word from my vocabulary". A 14 page love letter written in 1952 reveals that she "considered the possibility that her state of mind might be one calling for psychoanalysis". Her poignant reactions to personal tragedy are recorded, for example at the death of her lover, Franz Steiner: "Strange, how all other interests can perish, [...] At the moment I can't see how to get on at all."
  • Innumerable hitherto obscure character traits come into view, for example her obsession with finding a husband: on 13 March 1951 she wrote: "If I could only stop thinking about marriage maybe I'd get some work done". Amongst such surprising revelations is an unexpected lack of confidence as she confesses that "the hatred & contempt that I usually feel for my completed work [that] has come on rather earlier than usual".
  • The variations in her handwriting itself are in themselves revealing. The catalogue describes a letter of June 1946 from Graz, as "long and luminous, written in her larger, more expansive hand, while others, darker and more complex, are written in less easily decipherable more intense script - the archive could serve as evidence of handwriting as emblematic of psychological state".
Photograph of a desk in Iris Murdoch's study